Thursday, January 24, 2013

Once An Avenger, Not Always An Avenger

Jack Kirby's second and last Captain America annual (#4), produced while he was holding the reins on the Cap book and other titles during his late '70s return to Marvel, wasn't as bold in concept and rich in story as the Cap annual he produced a year earlier. In fact, if you were to compare the written teaser on the splash page with its predecessor, which had more scope, this time it would have an almost generic tone to it:

The wording here offers no spur of anticipation, except perhaps to make us wonder what Magneto is doing mixed up with Cap. But at least on the double-page spread which follows, we have a curious newspaper advertisement that indicates there's something more to this meeting than fisticuffs between hero and villain:

But first, let's get this issue's audacious title out of the way: "The Great Mutant Massacre!" I'm sorry to report that the only thing in the issue relevant to this title is the word "mutant." "Massacre" implies the killing of a large number of people, but the deaths in this issue don't occur on such a scale; and there's nothing "great" (as in "grand") about Magneto's plans, nor does he or anyone else initiate a slaughter that the title would lead us to believe. But we do have mutants. Magneto, for one; then there are his mutant hirelings:

As well as his mutant target, which will unwillingly help him investigate a mystery--a mutant small enough to fit inside a watch casing:

But this mutant, unknown to Magneto, co-exists with another, larger body, which reacts violently whenever his smaller body is put in danger. In other words, Magneto should be careful who he tries to put the snatch on:

So why is Magneto so intent on capturing "Mister One"? And do I really need to tell you that his larger counterpart is named "Mister Two"? Don't look so surprised. When you shake a Kirby book, a "mister" is bound to fall out from between the pages from time to time:

Much of this story is spent doing one of two things--investigating the mystery of Mister One and Mister Two, and following Magneto's efforts to recover Mister One and make use of him in his secret project. Captain America, at least, can help us with the first, when he finally deduces the reason for the connection between the two "misters":

As for Magneto, we eventually find out that he needs Mister One in order to investigate a small-scale space ship which has fallen into his grasp, and thereby access and control whatever power may lie within its hull:

It's certainly an issue full of plot devices. Magneto's little strike squad, for instance, is just hired muscle in order to gain his prizes and provide battle sequences with Cap. And while we know it's the secrets of the space ship which motivate Magneto, we never do learn anything more about the ship itself. Yet they all connect in some limited fashion to move the story along. "Burner," for instance, incinerates Mister Two, which means that Mister One's moments of life are numbered--so while he's inside the alien ship, he finds the self-destruct mechanism and detonates the ship (with himself still inside it), foiling Magneto's plans (whatever the hell they are--beyond the grasp for power, we never learn anything more from him, either). And Cap? Cap just fights his way through and around this mess, to no avail. It's a battle-heavy issue, to be sure--but it all seems so pointless.

So you'd expect at least the final page to connect the dots and put it all together, right? Well, we get an explosive climax, but I'm afraid all the answers go up in smoke with it:

Yes, you're reading that correctly: it's the last page of the issue, and not even Cap knew about the ship. And judging by the last three panels, he's clueless on pretty much everything at this point:

Join the club, Cap. We're wandering in a daze right there with you. Hey, mind if I give your shield a toss?

The story's ending also lets the wind out of our sails as far as the mutant it makes such an effort to focus on--the mind that shared two different-sized bodies.  This mutant was the driving force of the entire issue, yet once it sacrificed itself no one gave it a second thought--not even Cap, who just drops the entire matter as quickly as Magneto callously did.  (And as quickly as Kirby himself seems to.)  I at least felt sympathy over the mutant's circumstances as well as a little sad at his death, yet Cap just seems to be dusting his palms together in the satisfaction that the case is wrapped up.  Not exactly the model Avenger.

With Kirby due to make his final departure from Marvel in about eight months, he wouldn't have the opportunity to work on another Captain America annual.  I can't help but wonder how this annual would have read if he didn't have one foot out the door at this point, so to speak, though that may be over-simplifying it.  Over in Cap's main title, Kirby was still the workhorse--but the only significant story we would see from this point on would be one featuring the Red Skull and Arnim Zola.  Bookending it would be more of Kirby's stock concepts featuring deformed creatures, science gone mad, time travelers, and dimensional intruders, complete with pat wrap-up endings:

Bet you thought it was going to be "Mister" Swine, didn't you?


Unknown said...

A solid review and I think you hit all the high points, though the best part of this annual may have been the cover.

I read this issue a couple weeks ago but stopped short of including it in my Longbox Graveyard review of Kirby's 1970s run on Captain America. I thought it an entertaining action tale and I liked Mister One & Mister Two, but I was puzzled by that abrupt ending and the whole thing with the little spaceship was just bizarre.

Did any of the mutants Kirby introduced in this issue make their way into the X-Men canon?

Comicsfan said...

They made appearances in a number of Defenders issues as the "Mutant Force" (with two or three other members), first working for the Mandrill (talk about a step down!) and then the government and even the Secret Empire. Then I think the Red Skull took them over and renamed them--but I haven't seen them make an appearance in a long time. I'm not sure why they never tackled the X-Men--I don't suppose they had any real reason to.

BTW, I enjoyed your Kirby run-down a lot. I've seen a number of such posts on Kirby's return to Marvel--everyone always seems to have an interesting take on it.

Kid said...

Makes me wish that Stan Lee had still been scripting Jack's tales at this point.

Comicsfan said...

I've often wondered what Lee's opinion was of Kirby's scripting, and I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in their meeting discussing the terms of Kirby's return to Marvel and his taking over the scripting of the books he'd be working on. To my knowledge, Lee has never gone on record about it; but I'd imagine he wouldn't be as blunt in his opinion as others have been, myself included.

Kid said...

I think if Lee had had any confidence in Kirby's scripting, he'd have let him do it in the '60s - the fact that he didn't says a lot. (I know he let Kirby script The Inhumans just before he left Marvel, but that was hardly a major mag.)

As for the '70s, Lee was becoming less and less involved with the mags and probably thought it was worth letting Kirby dialogue his own stuff, just to have him back. Jack always made out that he had no desire to return to Thor and the FF, but it actually may have been his insistence on doing his own scripting that meant he never had any chance of working on them anyway. (Apart from the occasional cover, of course.)

Comicsfan said...

All very good points.

Anonymous said...

I never liked the way that Kirby wrote Cap in the 70s, and this story just confirms my bias....

maw maw said...

I recall that Chris Claremont alluded to this issue in The Trial of Magneto (X-men 200), probably out of admiration for Kirby's work. Magneto is so out of character in this issue, it would have been better to leave this annual outside the Marvel Canon.

If anyone needs confirmation of Stan Lee's value to 1960s Marvel, look at the names of the Evil Mutants. Burner? Lifter? Jeez. Any literate 12-year-old could have done better! Perhaps Kirby had at least one foot out the door when he did this.

Unknown said...

To date, I believe that Kirby's work is highly under-valued. He was the King of Kinetic Action; while Stan Lee was obsessed with drama.
Jack Kirby's Captain America and Black Panther runs include timeless, yet timely tales. If you juxtapose the seminal Steve Englehart Secret Empire story with Kirby's Cap vs. The Elite, the Secret Empire story is firmly fixed in the Watergate era; whereas The Elite is extremely close to what is going on in America circa the 21st Century. That's the quandary with Jack Kirby: "dated" artwork, with timeless/foreboding tales....